When Can Openers Can’t

Tins By Rich Does

I wanted to make a simple chili meal for a weeknight. All I needed was some hamburger, spices a can of kidney beans, a can of diced tomatoes and one can of tomato sauce. It sounds simple enough because my hamburger was already done. I’m the kind of cook where I brown, and then freeze, ten or twenty pounds of hamburger at a time. I can then defrost some as needed without messing with the grease. How hard could it be? Yet this recipe calls for me to use my nemesis, the can opener.

Can openers and I don’t seem to get along. Growing up, I had a simple, hand crank opener. It was a lightweight, all-metal item, which cost less than a dollar. I never gave it much thought– it did the job. I have the same version now, only it cost me more than a dollar. I bought two at the same time. One fell apart in the dishwasher before I ever got the chance to use it. The other works about half the time. It may puncture a can, but it has a hard time catching and rotating.

That was my luck on the kidney beans. Puncture and hope. Puncture and hope. Finally, I punctured the can at the correct angle allowing the rotation needed to open it. One down, two to go.

The first can was invented 1795. Napoleon offered 12,000 Franks to anyone who could come up with a way of preserving food for his troops. The cans were opened with a bayonet, a chisel and hammer, or by a rock. It wasn’t until sixty years later, that Ezra J. Warner received a patent for the first US can opener on January 5, 1858. It wasn’t the greatest, but it beat the bayonet or a rock.

In 1870, William Lyman invented the type of hand-held can opener we use today. It wasn’t his fault my tool was too poorly manufactured to work. Hand-held can openers can range from a dollar to almost twenty dollars. On the next can I needed to open, I decided to use my more expensive hand-held. It’s the kind with cushioned handles and some weight behind it.

I don’t know if it’s because I was using it on a smaller can, or if it was the opener itself, but it wasn’t working. I was able to make a hole. Sauce slopping over my hands was proof of that, but again, I couldn’t get it to rotate around the can. I finally decided to shake the tomato sauce through the slots the opener had made. I needed to make the holes larger, so I tried my own version of the chisel and hammer method. I attempted to jam the handle end of the opener into a slot to make it bigger. The can went flying, spraying tomato sauce all over the kitchen. After cleaning up, I decided it wasn’t such an important ingredient in the chili after all.

That’s when my son walked in the room. After listening to my complaints, he lifted the can, hefting it to show the amount of sauce left. He volunteered to use the electric can opener to finish the job.

It’s a funny thing about high-tech solutions, sometimes the old, tried-and-true are just as good. But, I was shocked to learn my son’s friends had never seen a manual can opener and didn’t how to use one. I worry about their backup plans during the next power outage.

Electric can openers were invented in 1931 but sales languished. Apparently, people in the middle of a depression didn’t have much use for one. They were reintroduced in late 1950’s and were a big hit. Current prices for average electric openers range between thirteen to fifty dollars. Some openers can cost as much as several hundred dollars.

My electric can opener was in the midrange of products. This opener no longer stops after it finishes opening the can. It continues, pivoting the can and causing some of the contents to spray the wall and counter. Before I can retrieve it, I must first unplug the machine. As I release the mechanism, more product spills, no matter how careful my attempts. I hated using it, but my son had more patience.

If someone could guarantee that my next can opener would work, I would gladly buy one of those options. My father suggested I get my hands on a P-38 C-Ration can opener used in WWII. He claimed it always worked and there were hundreds of uses for it besides opening cans. I didn’t have one at the moment, but I did have one more can to open.

The diced tomatoes had a pull-top lid. Such joy! With ease, the lid pulled off, with no spillage. These types of lids can be iffy, so one always has to have a backup plan in case the tab breaks. Still, a pull-off lid is a thing of beauty when it works. First invented in 1959 by Emeral Fraze, he modified it further before he patented it in 1963. His US Patent number 3,349,949, commonly known as pop tops, revolutionized the beverage industry.

The same packaging has been available for regular cans since the 1980’s. Why, then, aren’t they in use on every can? Some claim people with dexterity issues would not be able to make use of the pull top can. Others refute this, indicating the product was still accessible using a can opener. The sources I’ve been able to find say it’s a cost issue. It must be true. As a consumer, I’ll usually select the can of diced tomatoes that is a penny or two cheaper. I wouldn’t think about the type of lid it had until I came home. I’m sure I bought that easy-open can because it had been on sale the day I went shopping. If only I had known….

Finally, having opened my three cans, I added them to my thawed hamburger and spices and began heating. That’s when my husband walked in with a pizza.